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Buffett program expands college aid
[September 07, 2008]

Buffett program expands college aid

(Omaha World-Herald (NE) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sep. 7--The investing prowess of Warren Buffett and the generosity of his family are paying dividends for students from across Nebraska who want to attend college.

The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation has nearly $4 billion in assets and has pledged to help make college accessible to more students with financial need.

The foundation has expanded a scholarship program that pays up to the cost of full tuition and fees, along with a book allowance, for Nebraska students who typically come from lower-income families.

If students qualify -- and thousands could -- they can take the scholarship to any undergraduate University of Nebraska campus or other public college in the state.

The foundation's commitment follows the promise that Omaha's Building Bright Futures initiative made last year to low-income students in the metro area: financial support for anyone who wanted to attend college. But the Buffett program is offering help across Nebraska, from Omaha to Alliance.

Now the two efforts led by some of Nebraska's wealthiest philanthropists are positioned to make a big difference for disadvantaged students.

Bright Futures' college access initiative is launching its own $23.6 million program in Omaha to provide a select group of students academic support and scholarships.

Thanks to the new availability of the Buffett scholarships, the Bright Futures Foundation will be able to focus more of its resources on academic help and less on searching for financial aid, the organization's chief executive said.

Already, the president of the University of Nebraska Foundation said that the Buffett program could become the state's most significant scholarship program.

Said Gaye Lannan, Omaha Benson High School's guidance director: "This is another great piece that opens the door to a lot of kids. You can see the money right there."

The Buffett Foundation has offered college scholarships for some 40 years, although today it is perhaps better known for offering the Buffett Outstanding Teacher Awards within the Omaha Public Schools.

Susie Buffett said the college scholarship program meant a lot to her mother, who died in 2004.

Following the settlement of her estate, the foundation had grown to $3.9 billion in assets by the end of 2007. Warren Buffett also is donating to the foundation as he turns most of his wealth into charitable contributions.

For years, the foundation capped the scholarship at about 100 students at any one time, said Allen Greenberg, the Buffett Foundation's president.

Starting with the 2007-08 school year, the foundation lifted that cap. Across Nebraska, 770 students -- including 400 new recipients this fall -- now hold a Buffett scholarship.

The foundation said it didn't know the value of scholarships given out for this year; it granted nearly $2.4 million during the 2007-08 year.

Susie Buffett said she hopes the number of scholarship recipients, particularly students from the Omaha area, increases significantly next year. Of the 400 new recipients, about 50 are from OPS and 30 are from other metro area districts.

"All this does is help make things better for a lot of kids, for their families and, frankly, for the whole state," she said.

After considering what students already received in grants and scholarships, the Buffett Foundation will pay up to $3,200 per semester for tuition and fees and $400 per semester for books.

It does not cover room and board, a potential $7,000 annual expense at the university. But the Buffett scholarships could allow students to put other grants and scholarships toward housing.

The scholarships -- which can be used at the university, state colleges or community colleges -- can run as long as five years for students at a four-year college.

The foundation is not drawing a hard line on who could qualify.

Although the scholarship program primarily focuses on students from lower-income families, Greenberg said, the qualifications aren't as rigid as those for federal grant aid. The foundation wants to consider individual circumstances that aren't factored into the federal calculation of financial need, he said.

Joe Novotny, a University of Nebraska at Omaha pre-medicine student, joined the Buffett program this semester.

Novotny, who comes from a middle-class background and a family of five siblings, said it was expected that he would pay for his college.

He worked and took out a small loan to get through his freshman year last year. Novotny, who now expects to move toward medical school without college debt, called the scholarship a blessing.

"To get a break like that is something that I had never experienced before," he said.

The scholarship also reaches out to more average students, requiring recipients to have maintained at least a 2.5 grade point average, or about a C-plus. To attend the university, students also must meet the academic admission requirements.

With more Buffett scholarship recipients, the foundation and the university's three undergraduate campuses have started a support program for the students: the Thompson Scholars program, named after Susan Buffett's father.

NU President J.B. Milliken said the scholarship program "will make an incredible difference in our ability to reach out to" potential students.

Pat Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said the scholarships could convince students who hadn't had college aspirations that attending college is possible. That will encourage students to take the right classes to prepare for college and high schools to provide more counseling support, he said.

The burden on Nebraska's low-income families trying to pay for college remains great.

According to 2006-07 figures from Nebraska's Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education, students from low-income families had to find $74.5 million, either through unsubsidized loans or their own money, to cover the cost of attending Nebraska's public institutions. On average, those students needed about $3,800 each.

But the issue has received increasing attention and funding in Nebraska, including new programs from the university and for Nebraska's community colleges.

In Omaha, the Bright Futures Foundation board, which includes Susie Buffett, and local businessmen and philanthropists Walter Scott Jr. and Michael Yanney, has approved a five-year program estimated to cost $23.6 million and committed to fund the first year's $2.2 million cost.

Ken Bird, chief executive of the Bright Futures Foundation, said the goal is to incorporate 500 students into the program over five years. Bright Futures will recruit 75 to 100 high school students this year who need help to get or stay on the college track, then add 100 students each year.

The program is still determining what income guidelines it would use in selecting students.

Bright Futures will focus on building academic and social support networks to work with the students in both high school and college. It plans to hire an initial four academic advisers to keep students on track in class and a social worker to address their needs outside school.

With the availability of other scholarships, Bright Futures doesn't expect to give full-ride scholarships of its own. Instead, it figures each scholar could receive a few thousand dollars from the initiative itself.

Bright Futures also will be among those seeking out Buffett scholarships in the coming years. Susie Buffett has urged Bird to tap the foundation's scholarships.

"This is more than a scholarship program," Bird said of Bright Futures.

"We're worried about building human capital and changing lives long term."

How Bright Futures proceeds after five years is still to be decided. When Building Bright Futures was announced last year, organizers pledged financial support for any low-income student from Douglas and Sarpy Counties who wanted to attend college.

Bird said the initiative could grow to help address that goal, but it's possible that could be handled by the Buffett Foundation's scholarships.

Clarence Castner, president of the NU Foundation, said it's hard to quantify the Buffett program's impact today. But he said he expects the program to have a dramatic effect -- large enough to change the university and the state.

"It's huge," he said. "How huge, we don't know yet."

--Contact the writer: 444-1128,

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